LMU and Otis collaborate with the Westchester-Loyola Village Library
By Michael Aushenker
How do you top “Moby Dick”?
For the sequel to last year’s citywide celebration of that classic of American literature, the Los Angeles Public Library turned to the tale that set the 2,800-year standard for the epic sea voyage narrative — inspiring the very word we use to describe long and adventurous journeys.
“The Odyssey,” written in the 8th century B.C., is the centerpiece of nearly every college’s introductory classical literature course. After the fall of Troy, Greek hero Odysseus rambles on his voyage home to his wife and son back to his kingdom in Ithaca, and along the way he becomes stranded on the island of Calypso and is confronted by sea god Poseidon, the Cyclops Polyphemus, Phaeacian princess Nausicaa, witch goddess Circe, the deadly Sirens and sea monster Scylla.
On Saturday, Westchester hosts an exploration of the text that also involves a physical journey from Loyola Marymount University to the Westchester-Loyola Village Library to the Otis College of Art and Design:
• At 11 a.m., LMU Classics and Archaeology Dept. Chair Matt Dillon discusses “The Women of the Odyssey” at the university’s Archaeology Center, University Hall, No. 3324.
• At 12:30 p.m., LMU’s Laband Art Gallery offers “Following the Prescribed Path,” an exhibit featuring seven artists who engage in an “Odyssey”-inspired journey.
• At 1:30 p.m., Otis rare books librarian Cathy Chambers leads a 20-minute “sights and senses” journey from Laband Art Gallery to Westchester-Loyola Village Library (7114 W. Manchester Ave.), featuring LMU programming librarian Raymundo Andrade in costume as the Cyclops.
• At 2 p.m., Westchester-Loyola Village Library offers “The Tastes & Arts of Greece,” when “L.A. River Odyssey,” Peter Shire’s whimsical modern interpretation of a Greek vase, is unveiled, and L.A. Puppet Theater Tree of Wonders retells “The Odyssey” as shadow puppetry for kids.
• By 3 p.m., Odyssey travelers continue their journey to the Millard Sheets Library at Otis (9045 Lincoln Blvd.) where Chambers leads a bookmaking workshop.
As part of the opening discussion, LMU’s Dillon presents a collection of artifacts contemporaneous to the composition of “The Odyssey,” including a vase discovered in Phoenicia (today Lebanon) picturing Heracles (mentioned in “The Odyssey”) and a centaur.
The sequel to “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey” is the more famous work attributed to Homer and laid the groundwork for “Beowulf” and even the works of Shakespeare, Dillon said.
“These poems were known by everyone, not just scholars — by women, by slaves, by children. They were just part of their context,” he said. “Odyssey has become a word for any sort of journey. Probably not many have read the story, but it has been passed around and has become common coin.”
In ancient times, everyday Greeks measured themselves by the heroes of the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” which may be problematic since Odysseus is something of “a trickster, a liar and a cheat,” Dillon said.
So is the bold adventurer of “The Odyssey” something of an unreliable narrator?
“That’s the $10-million question,” Dillon said, because “the Cyclops and the sirens are not part of the story, but what Odysseus tells us in the story. Homer puts them in the mouth of a character who likes to lie.”
“The Odyssey” has been sourced throughout the course of literary history, including James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel” by Nikos Kazantzakis and “Omeros” by Caribbean author Derek Walcott. Film treatments of the text include the 1954 Kirk Douglas vehicle “Ulysses,” while the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” referenced the work fast and loose.
Despite Homer’s immortal face, the author’s origin and identity remain a mystery.
“Homer is a convenient name applied to the author of the poem. We know nothing about Homer. At the moment, the scholarly world is kind of divided as to whether the poems can be ascribed to the same poet,” Dillon said. “The [tale’s] geography is somewhat murky, too. While an island called Ithaca exists in Greece, it bears no resemblance to the Ithaca depicted in Homer’s work. There’s no way to identify the island of Calypso [either].”
As for the women of the text, “they are extraordinary,” Dillon said. “We talk a lot about Greek mythology and there’s plenty of sexism in it, but these are positive role models.” Even Helen of Troy is “presented fairly positively,” he said.
Carolyn Peter, director of the Laband Gallery, said it was coincidence that she happened to have an exhibition in the planning stages that mirrored “The Odyssey.” “Following the Prescribed Path,” spanning from the 1950s to the present day, features art by Kim Abeles, Vito Acconci, Bas Jan Ader, Gabrielle Ferrer, Erin Mallea, Diane Meyer and Mark Ruwedel and runs through Nov. 23.
“Most of the artists undertook a physically challenging, creative, spiritual journey,” Peter explained.
Most dramatically, Dutch photographer Bas Jan Ader documented his 1973 walk from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific Ocean in 26 photographs on display, but a follow-up 1975 sail from Cape Cod to his native Holland echoed “Homer’s Odysseus returning home,” Peter said, only with a sad twist: Ader has gone missing ever since.
Miriam Touchton, the recently hired children’s librarian at Westchester-Loyola Village Branch, leads an exploration of “The Odyssey” for younger readers that features aspects of “journeying, overcoming obstacles, mythological creatures” embedded in the Homeric poem as well as the Tree of Wonders’ presentation.
“It’s great to see how positively they still respond to puppet shows even in an age when they’re all pretty savvy with electronics,” Touchton said.
Otis’ Chambers is looking forward to the collaboration.
“Our three institutions are so close and yet so far apart in so many ways. We’re all working in a common goal [and] thinking about one idea from different angles,” she said. “Westchester is its own little community and it’s important to get people here to realize the riches we’ve got here.”
“Here we are within a stone’s throw of each other bringing to the attention of the community resources they may not have thought of. It’s exciting to be part of that,” Touchton said.
The Westchester-Loyola Village Library can be reached at (310) 348-1096. For information about related events citywide, visit lfla.org/odyssey.
Mar Vista is also celebrating the Odyssey this month, with the children’s program “Odyssey Time with John Rocco” at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 and a Children’s Odyssey Obstacle Course at 2 p.m. on Oct. 25, both at the Mar Vista Library, 12006 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista. Call (310) 390-3454; lapl.org.